When I lived in Los Angeles in the ‘90s, I used to listen to a radio show called “The United States of Los Angeles.” Each episode featured a different neighborhood or unique personality from across the city, and each presented a kaleidoscopic window into the diverse cultures that define Los Angeles and our country as a whole. At the same time, the program somehow made the vast, sprawling metropolis of LA feel more manageable, more accessible, and more unified.
The opening sentence of this week’s Torah portion, Noah, reads, “These are the toldoth of Noah. Noah, a righteous man, was perfect in his generation; with God did Noah walk.” According to most translations, toldoth means “generations,” though one commentator renders the word as “products.” Read literally, the “products” referred to are Noah’s three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, but a figurative reading suggests that each son represents, or is a product of, a different facet of Noah’s character.
Take the sons’ names. Each reveals a different archetype. In Hebrew, Shem means “name” and reflects the wisdom of humankind and our ability to name, define, and express a concept, spiritually and intellectually. Ham, in Hebrew, means “heat” and represents our joyous and earthy response to the physical world. The last son’s name, Japheth, relates to the Hebrew words for beauty and openness to sentiment. And when Noah brought his three, eponymous sons onto the ark, they brought with them the characteristics suggested by their names. Those distinctions became the defining features of the survivors of the Flood, and of their descendants, and of their descendants’ descendants, and, eventually, of us all.
After years of living in the United States of Los Angeles and after years past and present in Denver, I have come to see myself as connected, through geography and quasi-genealogy, to all of the diverse communities with and among whom I have lived. I have also come to think of “tolerance” of diversity as no better than ignoring or disregarding the other. Would we not all prefer to be understood—to be known—than to be merely tolerated?
May we reflect this Shabbat on how our differences are our commonality and on the ties that bind.
Rabbi Jay Strear